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Saturday, October 1, 2005

The Lost World Of Glen Canyon

Dry years in the West have lowered the level of Lake Powell and revealed long-submerged canyons

Beginning in 1999, the usual deep Rocky Mountain snowpack became anemic, causing the water level in Lake Powell to fall approximately 30 feet each year since then. Back in the fall of 2002, as the drought continued, I began to realize that if these conditions persisted, I'd have the opportunity to travel back in time to revisit the canyons as they were when I first arrived in the West more than 30 years ago.

By the spring of 2003, arriving on the heels of yet another dry winter, I set out to explore as many drained-out canyons as I could before the water level began to rise with the spring snowmelt. In the wider canyons, high sediment banks rose on both sides of the streambeds, but I also found narrow canyons where more than 40 feet of accumulated sediment had already been flushed out.

I compared old photos to what I was seeing and was astonished at the similarity. It was as if the reservoir had never been. Small plants and ferns were already beginning to reestablish hanging gardens along the walls as cottonwood shoots, willows and wildflowers spread across newly exposed ground. Desert varnish was beginning to obliterate the "bathtub" ring.

Fast-forward to February 2005 as the annual low point for the reservoir approached. I had calculated that the floor of the Cathedral in the Desert would likely rise out of the water sometime in April for the first time in nearly 40 years. The reservoir finally bottomed out at an elevation of 145 feet below full pool, a level last seen in 1969 as the reservoir was filling. Seventy percent of the water in Lake Powell was gone.

My wife and I outfitted a pontoon boat with our gear and motored down the lake to the entrance of the Escalante and proceeded to the mouth of Clear Creek Canyon. With great anticipation of what lay ahead of us, we slowly moved up the canyon. As our boat rounded that last bend and entered the narrow chamber of the Cathedral, we couldn't quite believe our eyes. There at the back of the chamber, the waterfall stood high above the reclaimed floor of the canyon.

I had seen this image so many times before, but only in two-dimensional photographs. Now, here we were, as if gazing into the eyes of a long-dead friend. Retrieving my camera gear from the boat, I silently began to compose my first image in this sacred place. Later on, I located and stood on the same spot where Phillip Hyde captured his iconic image of Cathedral back in 1964 as the reservoir waters were already rising. This was the most profound experience of my professional lifeā€”to set up my own tripod and create my own images in that glowing, luminous chamber.

As I write this, the spring runoff from a snowpack 125% of normal is now flooding into Lake Powell. The water level is rising 18 inches every day and has already risen 30 feet since bottoming out in April. Many of the places we just explored are now re-submerged. Although I think last winter's high snowpack was a fluke, if this coming winter provides another above-average year, these canyons will continue to slip back beneath the dead waters of the reservoir.

Now that I've seen many of these canyons for myself, I can begin to understand how gut-wrenching it must have been for people to have watched them slowly drown beneath the waves. For those of us fortunate enough to have gazed upon these resurrected wonders of Glen Canyon, and to now watch them slip beneath the surface again, perhaps we can find solace in the words of Edward Abbey who, while bemoaning their loss, commented that the canyons aren't really gone at all. They're simply in "liquid storage," just waiting....



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